Soon after Krishna had returned from Hastinapur, Duryodhana sent a challenge to the Pandavas. His messenger spake, saying:
“You have vowed to wage war against us. The time has come for you to fulfil your vow. Your kingdom was seized by me, your wife Draupadi was put to shame, and you were all made exiles. Why do you not now seek to be avenged in battle? Where is drowsy Bhima, who boasted that he would drink the blood of Duhsasana? Duhsasana is weary with waiting for him. Where is arrogant Arjuna, who hath Drona to meet? When mountains are blown about like dust, and men hold back the wind with their hands, Arjuna will take captive the mighty Drona…. Of what account was the mace of Bhima and the bow of Arjuna on the day when your kingdom was taken from you, and you were banished like vagabonds?… Vain will be the help of Krishna when you meet us in battle.”
Krishna answered the messenger, saying: “Vainly dost thou boast of prowess, but ere long thy fate will be made known unto thee. I will consume thine army like to fire which consumeth withered grass. Thou wilt not escape me, for I will drive the chariot of Arjuna. And let Duhsasana know that the vow of Bhima will ere long be fulfilled.”
Said Arjuna: “Tell thou Duryodhana, ‘It is unseemly for warriors to boast like women…. It is well that Duhsasana cometh to battle.’”
When the messenger spake these words to Duryodhana, Karna said: “Cease this chatter! Let the drums of war be sounded.”
So on the morrow at red dawn the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas were assembled for battle on the wide plain of Kuru-Kshetra. Bhishma, with his large palmyra standard decked with five stars, had been chosen to lead Duryodhana’s army, and Karna, who had quarrelled with him, vowed not to fight so long as the older warrior remained alive. “Should he fall, however,” Karna said, “I will go forth against Arjuna.”
The army of the Pandavas was commanded by Dhrishta-dyumna, son of Drupada, and brother of Draupadi. Among the young heroes were Arjuna’s two sons, the noble and peerless Abhimanyu, whose mother was Krishna’s fair sister Subhadra, and brave Iravat, whose mother was Ulupi, the serpent nymph, daughter of the king of the Nagas. Bhima’s Rakshasa son, the terrible Ghatotkacha, who had power to change his shape and create illusions, had also hastened to assist his kinsmen. Krishna drove the chariot of Arjuna, who carried his celestial bow, named Gandiva, the gift of the god Agni; and his standard was the image of Hanuman, the chief ape god, who was the son of Vayu, the wind god. Now the army of Duryodhana was more numerous than the army of Yudhishthira.
Drona led the right wing of the Kaurava forces, which was strengthened by Shakuni, the gambler, and his Gandhari lancers. The left wing was led by Duhsasana, who was followed by Kamboja cavalry and fierce Sakas and Yavanas mounted on rapid steeds. The peoples of the north were there and the peoples of the south, and of the east also. Blind old Dhritarashtra was in the rear, and with him was Sanjaya, his charioteer, who related all that took place, having been gifted with divine vision by Vyasa.
Ere yet the conflict began, Yudhishthira walked unarmed towards the Kauravas, whereat his kinsmen made merry, thinking he was terror-stricken. But Pandu’s noble son first spake to Bhishma and asked permission to fight against him. Bhishma gave consent. Then he addressed Drona in like terms, and Drona gave consent also. And ere he returned to his place, Yudhishthira called out before the Kaurava army: “Whoso desireth to help our cause, let him follow me.” When he had spoken thus, Yuyutsu, the half-brother of Duryodhana, made answer: “If thou wilt elevate me, I will serve thee well.” Said Yudhishthira: “Be my brother.” Then Yuyutsu followed Yudhishthira with all his men, and no man endeavoured to hold him back.
When the armies were being set in order for battle, Arjuna bade Krishna to drive his chariot to the open space on which the struggle would take place. Indra’s mighty son surveyed the hosts, and when he saw his kinsmen, young and old, and his friends and all the elders and princes on either side ready to fall upon one another, his heart was touched, and he trembled with pity and sorrow. He spake to Krishna, saying: “I seek nor victory, nor kingdom, nor any joy upon earth. Those for whose sake we might wish for power are gathered against us in battle. What joy can come to us if we commit the crime of slaying our own kinsmen?”
So saying, Arjuna let fall his celestial bow and sat down on the bench of his chariot with a heart full of grief.
Krishna admonished Arjuna, saying: “Thou art a Kshatriya, and it is thy duty to fight, no matter what may befall thee or befall others. So I command thee who am responsible for thy doings. He who hath wisdom sorroweth not for the living or for the dead. As one casteth off old raiment and putteth on new, so the soul casteth off this body and entereth the new body. Naught existeth that is not of the soul.”
After long instruction, Krishna revealed himself to Arjuna in his celestial splendour and power and said: “Let thy heart and thine understanding be fixed in me, and thou shalt dwell in me hereafter. I will deliver thee from all thy sins…. I am the same unto all creatures; there is none hateful to me—none dear. Those who worship me are in me and I am in them. Those who hate me are consigned to evil births: they are deluded birth after birth, nor ever reach unto me.”
Arjuna gave ear unto the counsel of Krishna, and prepared for the fray.
Loudly bellowed the war shells, and the drums of battle were sounded. The Kauravas made ready to attack with horsemen, footmen, and charioteers, and elephants of war. The Pandavas were marshalled to meet them. And the air was filled with the shouting of men, the roaring of elephants, the blasts of trumpets, and the beating of drums: the rattling of chariots was like to thunder rolling in heaven. The gods and Gandharvas assembled in the clouds and saw the hosts which had gathered for mutual slaughter.
As both armies waited for sunrise, a tempest arose and the dawn was darkened by dust clouds, so that men could scarce behold one another. Evil were the omens. Blood dropped like rain out of heaven, while jackals howled impatiently, and kites and vultures screamed hungrily for human flesh. The earth shook, peals of thunder were heard, although there were no clouds, and angry lightning rent the horrid gloom; flaming thunderbolts struck the rising sun and broke in fragments with loud noise….
The undaunted warriors never faltered, despite these signs and warnings. Shouting defiance, they mingled in conflict, eager for victory, and strongly armed. Swords were wielded and ponderous maces, javelins were hurled, and numerous darts also; countless arrows whistled in speedy flight.
When the wind fell and the air cleared, the battle waxed in fury. Bhishma achieved mighty deeds. Duryodhana led his men against Bhima’s, and they fought with valour. Yudhishthira fought with Salya, Rajah of Madra; Dhrishta-dyumna, son of Drupada, went against Drona, who had captured aforetime half of the Panchala kingdom with the aid of the Pandavas. Drupada was opposed to Jayadratha, the Rajah of Sindhu, who had endeavoured to carry off Draupadi, and was compelled to acknowledge himself the slave of Yudhishthira. Many single combats were fought with uncertain result.
All day the armies battled with growing ardour. When evening was coming on, Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, perceived that the advantage lay with the Kauravas, chiefly because of Bhishma’s prowess. So he went speedily against that mighty warrior, and cut down the ensign of his chariot. Bhishma said that never before had he beheld a youthful hero who could perform greater deeds. Then he advanced to make fierce attack upon the Pandava army. Victoriously he went, cutting a blood-red path through the stricken legions; none could resist him for a time. The heart of Arjuna was filled with shame, and he rode against Bhishma, whose advance was stayed. The two heroes fought desperately until dusk. Then Bhishma retired; but Arjuna followed him, and pressed into the heart of the Kaurava host, achieving great slaughter. The truce was sounded, and the first day’s battle came to an end.
Yudhishthira was despondent because that the fortunes of war seemed to be against him; in the darkness he went unto Krishna, who bade him to be of good cheer, and Yudhishthira was comforted.
On the morning of the second day Bhishma again attacked the Pandava forces, shattering their ranks; but Arjuna drove him back. Perceiving this, Duryodhana lamented to Bhishma that he had quarrelled with Karna. The old warrior made answer: “Alas! I am a Kshatriya and must fight even against my beloved kinsman.” Then he rode against Arjuna once more, and the two warriors contended fiercely and wounded one another.
Drupada’s son waged a long combat with Drona, and Bhima performed mighty deeds. He leapt on the back of an elephant and slew the son of the Rajah of Maghadha; and he slew the rajah and his elephant also with a single blow of his mace.
Towards evening a furious combat was waged by Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, and Lakshmana, son of Duryodhana. The young Pandava was about to achieve the victory, when Duryodhana came to his son’s aid with many rajahs. Shouts were raised: “Abhimanyu is in peril; he will be overcome by force of numbers!” Arjuna heard these words, and rode to the rescue. Thereupon the Kauravas cried out in terror: “Arjuna! Arjuna!” and scattered in flight. That evening Bhishma spake unto Drona and said: “Methinks the gods are against us.”
On the third day the army of the Pandavas advanced in crescent formation and drove back the Kaurava army. Many were slain, and rivers of blood laid down the dust; horses writhed in agony, and the air was filled with the shrieking and moaning of wounded men. Terrible were the omens, for headless men rose up and fought against one another; then the people feared that all who contended in that dread battle would be slain.
When he beheld the broken cars, the fallen standards, and the heaps of slain elephants and horses and men, Duryodhana said to Bhishma: “Thou shouldst yield thy place to Karna. Methinks thou art partial to Arjuna and the Pandavas.”
“Thy struggle is in vain, foolish Duryodhana. None can wipe out the stain of thy sins; of no avail is cunning against a righteous cause. Verily, thou shalt perish because of thy folly…. I have no fear of battle, and I will lead the Kauravas until I triumph or fall.”
Then angry Bhishma urged his charioteer to attack the enemy; and he drove back all who opposed him, even Arjuna. The fighting became general, nor did it end until night obscured the plain.
Bhima was the hero of the fourth day of battle. He swept against the Kauravas like a whirlwind; in vain were darts thrown and arrows shot at the strong Pandava. He wounded both Duryodhana and Salya, Rajah of Sindhu. Then fourteen of Duryodhana’s brethren rushed to combat with him. Like the lion who licks his lips when he beholds his prey drawing nigh, Bhima awaited them. Brief and terrible was the conflict, and ere six princes fled in terror, eight were slaughtered by the mighty Pandava.
Another day dawned, and Arjuna and Bhima advanced in triumph until they were met and held back by Drona. Once again the sons of Duryodhana and Arjuna sought out one another. Mighty were their blows and swift, and for a time all men watched them, wondering greatly. At length Lakshmana was grievously wounded, and was carried from the field by his kinsmen. Abhimanyu returned in triumph to Yudhishthira. On that same day were slain by Bhuri-sravas the ten great sons of Satyaki, Krishna’s kinsman.
Another day dawned, and it was a day of peril for Bhima. Confident of victory, he pressed too far into the midst of the Kaurava host, and was surrounded by overwhelming numbers. Drupada perceived his peril and hastened to help him, but neither could retreat. Then Arjuna’s fearless son, the slayer of Lakshmana, with twelve brave chieftains shattered the Kaurava hosts and rescued Bhima and Drupada from the surging warriors who thirsted for their blood.
The seventh day was the day of Bhishma. None could withstand him in his battle fury. The Pandavas quailed before him, nor could Bhima or Arjuna drive him back. Ere night fell, the standard of Yudhishthira was cut down, and the Kauravas rejoiced greatly, believing that they would achieve a great victory.
On the day that followed, however, the tide of battle turned. As Bhishma advanced, his charioteer was slain, and the steeds took flight in terror. Then confusion fell on the Kaurava army. For a time the Pandavas made resistless advance amidst mighty slaughter. Then the six Gandhari princes advanced to beat back the forces of Yudhishthira. On milk-white steeds they rode, and they swept like to sea birds across the ocean billows. They had vowed to slay Iravat, son of Arjuna and the Naga princess. The gallant youth feared them not and fought triumphantly, stirred with the joy of battle; he slew five of the princes, but the sixth, the eldest prince, struck down Arjuna’s son, who was plucked thus rudely from life like to a fair and tender lotus. Terrible was the grief of Arjuna when he was told that his son had fallen. Then with tear-dimmed eyes he dashed upon the foe, thirsting for vengeance; he broke through the Kaurava ranks, and Bhima, who followed him, slew more of Duryodhana’s brethren.
Bhima’s terrible son, the Rakshasa Ghatotkacha, also sought to be avenged when Iravat fell. Roaring like the sea, he assumed an awesome shape, and advanced with flaming spears like the Destroyer at the end of Time, followed by other Rakshasas. Warriors fled from his path, until Duryodhana went against him with many elephants; but Ghatotkacha scattered the elephant host. Duryodhana fought like a lion and slew four Rakshasas, whereupon Bhima’s son, raging furiously, his eyes red as fire, dashed against Duryodhana; but that mighty Kaurava shot arrows like angry snakes, and he wounded his enemy. Then a rajah urged his elephant in front of Duryodhana’s chariot for protection. Ghatotkacha slew the great animal with a flaming dart. Next Bhishma pressed forward with a division to shield Dhritarashtra’s son, and the Rakshasa fought fiercely; he wounded Kripa, and with an arrow severed the string of Bhishma’s bow. Then the Panchalas hastened to aid Bhima’s son, and the Kauravas were scattered in flight.
Duryodhana was stricken with sorrow, and went to the snow-white tent of Bhishma that night and spoke, saying: “Forgive my harsh words, O mighty chieftain. The Pandavas are brave in battle, but they are unable to resist thee. If, however, thou dost love them too well to overcome them utterly, let Karna take thy place, so that he may lead the hosts against our enemies.”
Said Bhishma: “Alas! Duryodhana, thy struggle is of no avail. The just cause must win; they who fight for the right are doubly armed. Besides, Krishna is with the Pandavas: he drives Arjuna’s car, and not even the gods could strike them down. Thou art confronted by utter ruin, O proud and foolish prince. I will fight as I have fought until the end, which is not now far off.”
On the next day Bhishma was like a lordly elephant which treads down the marsh reeds; he was like a fire which burns up a dry and withering forest. In his chariot he advanced triumphantly, and great was the carnage which he wrought.
Yudhishthira was in despair, and spake to Krishna when night fell. Krishna said:
“Bhishma has vowed that he will not slay one who had been born a woman, knowing that the righteous would defame him if he slew a female. Let Sikhandin be therefore sent against him with Arjuna.”
Arjuna said: “Alas! I cannot fight behind another, or achieve the fall of Bhishma by foul means. I loved him as a child; I sat upon his knee and called him ‘Father’. Rather would I perish than slay the saintly hero.”
Said Krishna: “It is fated that Bhishma will fall on the morrow, a victim of wrong. As he hath fought against those whom he loveth, so must thou, Arjuna, fight against him. He hath shown thee how Kshatriyas must ever wage war, although their foemen be hated or well beloved.”
Arjuna, being thus admonished, went forth on the tenth day with Sikhandin, born a woman and made a male by a Yaksha.
Once again Duryodhana sought to prevail upon Bhishma to give place to Karna, and Bhishma answered him in anger: “This day will I overcome the Pandavas or perish on the field of battle.”
Then the ancient hero advanced and challenged Arjuna. A terrible conflict ensued, and it lasted for many hours; all the warriors on either side stopped fighting and looked on. At length Sikhandin rushed forward like a foaming billow, and when Bhishma saw him his arms fell, for he could not contend against one who had been born a woman. Then the arrows of Arjuna pierced Bhishma’s body, and the peerless old hero fell from his chariot wounded unto death…. The sun went down, and darkness swept over the plain.
There was great sorrow on the blood-drenched plain that night. Arjuna wept as a son weeps for a father, and he carried water to Bhishma. Yudhishthira cursed the day on which the war began. To the dying chieftain came Duryodhana and his brethren also. Friends and enemies lamented together over the fallen hero.
Bhishma spake to Duryodhana, saying: “Hear the counsel of thy dying kinsman; his voice speaketh as from the dead. If thy heart of stone can be moved, thou wilt bring this slaughter of kinsmen by kinsmen to an end now. Restore unto Yudhishthira his kingdom and make thy peace with him, and let Pandavas and Kauravas be friends and comrades together.”
He spoke in vain, for his words stirred the heart of Duryodhana to hate his kinsmen the Pandavas with a deeper hatred than before.
Karna came to the battlefield, and Bhishma said unto him: “Proud rivals have we two been, jealous one of the other, and ever at strife. My voice faileth, yet must I tell thee that Arjuna is not greater than thou art on the battlefield. Nor is he of higher birth, for thou art the son of Pritha and the sun god Surya. As Arjuna is thine own brother, ‘twould be well for thee to bring this strife to an end.”
But Bhishma spoke in vain. Karna hated his brother, and thirsted for his life.
A guard was set round Bhishma, who lay supported by a pillow of arrows, waiting the hour of his doom. Nor did he die until after the great conflict was ended.
The Kauravas held a council of war, and they chose Drona to be their leader. The battle standard of the Brahman was a water jar and a golden altar upon a deerskin. He vowed before Duryodhana that he would take Yudhishthira prisoner.
On the first day of Drona’s command, and the eleventh day of the great war, Abhimanyu was foremost in the fight. He dragged a chieftain by the hair out of his chariot, and would have taken him prisoner, but Jayadratha, the rajah who had endeavoured to abduct Draupadi, intervened, and broke his sword upon the young man’s buckler. Jayadratha fled, and Salya, Rajah of Madra, attacked Arjuna’s noble son. But Bhima dashed forward and engaged him in fierce combat. Both were mighty wielders of the mace; they were like two tigers, like two great elephants; they were like eagles rending one another with blood-red claws. The sound of their blows was like the echoing thunder, and each stood as steadfast as a cliff which is struck in vain by fiery lightning…. At length both staggered and fell, but Bhima at once sprang up to strike the final blow. Ere he could accomplish his fierce desire, however, Salya was rescued by his followers and carried to a place of safety…. Thereafter the battle raged with more fury than ever, until night fell and hid from sight all the dead and the living.
Drona sought to fulfil his vow on the second day of his command, and he prompted Susarman, the rajah who had invaded Virata when the Pandavas were servants there, to send a challenge for single combat to Arjuna. Susarman selected a place apart. Arjuna fought many hours, until he put the boastful rajah and his followers to flight; then he taunted them for their cowardice. Meanwhile Drona had dashed upon Yudhishthira, who, when confronted by certain downfall, leapt on the back of a swift steed and escaped from the battlefield. But it was no shame for a Kshatriya to flee before a Brahman.
Duryodhana went against Bhima: he was wounded after a brief combat, and retreated from the field. Many warriors then pressed against Bhima, but Arjuna had returned after fighting Susarman, and drove furiously against the Kauravas; in triumph he swept over the blood-red plain. Karna watched his rival with jealous wrath and entered the fray. The fire burned redly in his eyes, and he attacked Arjuna, resolved to conquer or to die. Uncertain and long was the conflict, and when night fell the two great warriors withdrew reluctantly from the field.
Drona on the morrow arranged his army like to a spider’s web, and once again Susarman challenged Arjuna, so as to draw him from the battle-front. It was the day of Abhimanyu’s triumph and the day of his death. Yudhishthira sent Arjuna’s son to break the web of foemen, and he rode his chariot against elephants and steeds with conquering fury. Duryodhana attacked the youthful hero with a band of warriors, but fell wounded by Abhimanyu, who also slew the warriors. Salya next dashed against Arjuna’s son, but ere long he was carried from the field grievously wounded. Then Duhsasana came forward, frowning and fierce.
Abhimanyu cried out: “Base prince, who plotted with Shakuni to win the kingdom of Yudhishthira and put Draupadi to shame, I welcome thee, for I have waited long for thee. Now thou wilt receive meet punishment for thy sins.”
As he spake, the fearless youth flung a dart, and Duhsasana fell stunned and bleeding, but was rescued from death by his followers.
Proudly rode Lakshmana, son of Duryodhana, against Arjuna’s son, and fought bravely and well; but he was cut down, and died upon the battlefield.
Then it was that the evil Jayadratha, who had vowed to be the slave of Yudhishthira in the forest, advanced stealthily with six warriors to fight with the lordly youth. Round him they surged like howling billows; alone stood Abhimanyu, and seven were against him. His charioteer was slain and his chariot was shattered; he leapt to the ground and fought on, slaying one by one…. Perceiving his peril, the Pandavas endeavoured to rescue Arjuna’s son; but Jayadratha held them back, and Karna aided him. At length Abhimanyu was wounded on the forehead, blood streamed into his eyes and blinded him, and he stumbled. Ere he could recover, the son of Duhsasana leapt forward and dashed out his brains with a mace. So died the gallant youth, pure as he was at birth. He died like to a forest lion surrounded by hunters; he sank like to the red sun at evening; he perished like to a tempest whose strength is spent; he was spent out even like a fire which has consumed a forest and is extinguished on the plain; Abhimanyu was lost as is the serene white moon when shrouded in black eclipse.
So that day’s battle ended, and Abhimanyu slumbered in the soft starlight, lifeless and cold.
When it was told to Arjuna that his son was slain, the mighty warrior wept silently and lay upon the ground. At length he leapt up and cried: “May the curse of a father and the vengeance of a warrior smite the murderers of my boy!… May I never reach heaven if I do not slay Jayadratha on the morrow….” A spy hastened to the camp of the Kauravas and told of the vow which Arjuna had taken. Jayadratha trembled with fear.
Early next morning Arjuna spake to Krishna, saying: “Drive swiftly, for this will be a day of great slaughter.” He desired to find Jayadratha; with him went Bhima and Satyaki. Many warriors engaged them in battle, for the Kauravas hoped to contrive that the sun should go down ere Arjuna could fulfil his terrible vow.
Mounted on an elephant, Duhsasana opposed Arjuna; but the lordly tusker took flight when the rattling chariot drew nigh. Drona blocked the way; but Arjuna refused combat, saying: “Thou art as a father unto me…. Let me find the slayer of my son….” He passed on. Then Duryodhana came up and engaged him. Karna fought with Bhima, and Bhurisrava attacked Satyaki. Long waged the bitter conflicts, and at length Krishna perceived that his kinsman was about to be slain. He called to Arjuna, who cast a celestial weapon at Bhurisrava, which cut off both his arms; then Satyaki slew him. Many warriors confronted Arjuna thereafter, and many fell. But the day wore on and evening drew nigh, and he could not find Jayadratha. At length Arjuna bade Krishna to drive furiously onward, and to pause not until he found the slayer of his son. The chariot sped like to a whirlwind, until at length Arjuna beheld the evil-hearted Jayadratha; he was guarded by Karna and five great warriors, and at that time the sun had begun to set.
Karna leapt forward and engaged Arjuna; but Krishna, by reason of his divine power, caused a dark cloud to obscure the sun, whereupon all men believed that night had fallen. Karna at once withdrew; but Arjuna drove on, and as the sun shot forth its last ray of dazzling light, he dashed upon Jayadratha as a falcon swoops down upon its prey. Brief was the struggle, for ere daylight faded utterly, Arjuna overthrew the slayer of his son and cut off his head. Bhima uttered a roar of triumph when he saw the head of Jayadratha held aloft, and the Kauravas sorrowed greatly because that their wicked design had been thwarted.
Night fell, but the fighting was renewed. In the darkness and confusion men slew their kinsmen, fathers cut down their sons, and brothers fought against brothers. Yudhishthira sent men with torches to light up the blood-red plain, and the battle was waged for many hours. Swords were splintered and spears were lost, and warriors threw great boulders and chariot wheels against one another. All men were maddened with the thirst for blood, and the night was filled with horrors.
At length Arjuna called for a truce, and it was agreed that the warriors should sleep on the battlefield. So all lay down, the charioteer in his chariot, the horseman on his steed, and the driver of the elephant on his elephant’s back….
Duryodhana reproached Drona because that he did not slay the Pandavas in their sleep…. “Let Karna,” he said, “lead the hosts to victory.”
Said Drona: “Thou art reaping the red harvest of thy sins…. But know now that on the morrow either Arjuna will fall or I will be slain by him.”
When the bright moon rose in the heavens the conflict was renewed. Many fell on that awful night. Ghatotkacha, the Rakshasa son of Bhima, was foremost in the fray, and he slaughtered numerous Kaurava warriors. At length Karna went against him, and then the air was filled with blazing arrows. Each smote the other with powerful weapons, and for a time the issue hung in the balance. Ghatotkacha created illusions, but Karna kept his senses in that great fight, even after his steeds had been slain; he leapt to the ground, then flung a celestial dart, the gift of Indra, and Ghatotkacha, uttering terrible cries, fell down and breathed his last breath. The Kauravas shouted with gladness, and the Pandavas shed tears of sorrow.
Ere the night was ended, Drona slew his ancient enemy Drupada, Rajah of Southern Panchala, and he cut down also the Rajah of Virata.
Ere dawn broke, Dhrishta-dyumna, son of Drupada, went forth to search for Drona, the slayer of his beloved sire.
Said Bhima: “Thou art too young to strike down so great a warrior as Drona. I will fight with him until he is wearied, then thou canst approach and be avenged.”
Bhima struggled with the sage, his preceptor, for many hours; then Dhrishta-dyumna engaged him, but neither could prevail over the slayer of Drupada.
At length the Pandava warriors shouted falsely: “Aswatthaman, son of Drona, is slain.”
When Drona heard the dread tidings, he fainted in his chariot, and vengeful Dhrishta-dyumna rushed forward and cut off his head. Then the son of Drupada threw the head of Drona towards Duryodhana, saying: “Here is the head of thy mighty warrior; I will cut off the heads of each Kaurava prince in like manner.”
The fall of Drona was like the sinking of heaven’s sun; it was like the drying up of the ocean; the Kauravas fled away in fear.
Terrible was the grief of Aswatthaman when he approached at eventide and found that his sire had been slain. Night fell while he sorrowed, and he vowed to slay Dhrishta-dyumna and all his kindred.
Karna was then chosen to be the leader of the Kaurava army, and Duryodhana hailed him with joy and said: “Thou alone canst stem the tide of our disasters. Arjuna hath been spared by Bhishma and by Drona because that they loved him. But the arm of Karna is strengthened by hatred of the proud Pandava archer.”
When morning broke over the plain of Kuru-kshetra, the first battle of Karna began, and it continued all day long. Countless warriors were slain; blood ran in streams, and the dead and mangled bodies of men and elephants and horses were strewn in confusion. The air was darkened with arrows and darts, and it rang with the shouts of the fighters and the moans of the wounded, the bellowing of trumpets, and the clamour of drums.
At length evening came on and the carnage ended…. Duryodhana summoned a council of war and said: “This is the sixteenth day of the war, and many of our strongest heroes have fallen. Bhishma and Drona have fallen, and many of my brethren are now dead.”
Said Karna: “To-morrow will be the great day of the war. I have vowed to slay Arjuna or fall by his hand.”
Duryodhana was cheered by Karna’s words, and all the Kauravas were once more hopeful of victory.
In the morning Karna went forth in his chariot. He chose for his driver Salya, Rajah of Madra, whose skill was so great that even Krishna was not his superior.
Arjuna was again engaged in combat with Susarman when Karna attacked the Pandava army. So the son of Surya went against Yudhishthira and cast him on the ground, saying: “If thou wert Arjuna I would slay thee.”
Bhima then attacked Karna, and they fought fiercely for a time, until Arjuna, having overcome Susarman, returned again to combat with Karna.
Duhsasana, who put Draupadi to shame, came up to help Karna, and Bhima sprang upon him. Now Bhima had long desired to meet this evil-hearted son of the blind maharajah, so that he might fulfil his vow. He swung his mace and struck so mighty a blow that the advancing chariot was shattered. Duhsasana fell heavily upon the ground and broke his back. Then Bhima seized him and, whirling his body aloft, cried out: “O Kauravas, come ye who dare and rescue the helper of Karna.”
No one ventured to approach, and Bhima cast down Duhsasana’s body, cut off his head, and drank his blood as he had vowed to do. “Ho! ho!” he cried, “never have I tasted a sweeter draught….”
Many Kaurava warriors fled, and they cried out: “This is not a man, for he drinketh human blood.”
All men watched the deadly combat which was waged between the mighty heroes Arjuna and Karna. They began by shooting arrows one at another, while Krishna and Salya guided the chariots with prowess and care. The arrows of Arjuna fell upon Karna like to summer rain; Karna’s arrows were like stinging snakes, and they drank blood. At length Arjuna’s celestial bow Gandiva was struck and the bowstring severed….
Arjuna said: “Pause, O Karna. According to the rules of battle, thou canst not attack a disabled foeman.”
But Karna heeded not. He showered countless arrows, until his proud rival was wounded grievously on the breast.
When Arjuna had restrung his bow, he rose up like to a stricken and angry tiger held at bay, and cast a screen of arrows against his foe. But Karna feared him not, nor could Arjuna bear him down. The issue hung in the balance….
Then suddenly a wheel of Karna’s chariot sank in the soft ground, nor could Salya urge the horses to advance.
Karna cried out: “Pause now, O Arjuna, nor wage unequal war. It is not manly to attack a helpless enemy.”
Arjuna paused; but Krishna spake quickly, saying:
“O Karna, thou speakest truly; but was it manly to shoot arrows at Arjuna whilst he engaged himself restringing his bow? Was it manly to scoff at Draupadi when she was put to shame before elders and princes in the gambling hall? Was it manly of thee and six warriors to surround Abhimanyu so as to murder him without compassion?”
When Arjuna heard his son’s name, his heart burned with consuming wrath. Snatching from his quiver a crescent-bladed arrow, he drew his bow and shot it at Karna, whose head was immediately struck off.
So fell in that dread combat a brother by a brother’s hand.
The Kauravas fled in terror when Karna was slain, and Kripa said unto Duryodhana: “Now that our greatest warriors are dead, it would be well to sue for peace.”
Said Duryodhana: “After the wrongs I have done the Pandavas, how can I ask or expect mercy at their hands? Let the war go on till the end comes.”
Salya was then chosen as the leader of the Kaurava army, which had greatly shrunken in numbers, and on the morning of the eighteenth day of the war the battle was waged with fury. But the Pandavas were irresistible, and when Duryodhana perceived that they were sweeping all before them, he fled away secretly, carrying his mace. He had power to hide under water as long as he desired, by reason of a mighty charm which had been conferred upon him by the demons; so he plunged into a lake and lay concealed below the waters.
Salya was slain by Yudhishthira, and he fell like to a thunder-splintered rock. Sahadeva overthrew false Shakuni, the gambler, who had played against Yudhishthira with loaded dice, and Bhima cut down all Duryodhana’s brethren who had survived until that last fateful day. Of all the Kaurava heroes there then remained alive only Aswa-thaman, son of Drona, Kripa, and Kritavarman, and the hidden Duryodhana.
At length Bhima discovered where Duryodhana was concealed. Yudhishthira went to the lake side and urged him to come forth and fight.
Said Duryodhana: “Take my kingdom now and have pleasure in it. Depart and leave me, for I must retire to the jungle and engage in meditation.”
Yudhishthira said: “I cannot accept aught from thee except what is won in battle.”
Said Duryodhana: “If you promise to fight one by one, I will come out of the water and slay you all.”
Yudhishthira said: “Come forth, and the battle will be fought as thou dost desire. Now thou hast spoken as becomes a Kshatriya.”
Still Duryodhana tarried, and Bhima shouted: “If thou dost not come out of the lake at once, I will plunge in and drag thee to the shore.”
Then Duryodhana came forth, and the Pandavas laughed to see him, for he was covered with mire, and water streamed down from his raiment.
Said Duryodhana: “Soon will your merriment be turned to grief.”
Now, all during the time of the Pandava exile, Duryodhana had practised with the mace, so that he became the equal of Bhima. But he had no one to support him there. The other survivors remained in hiding. Then Balarama appeared, and he caused the combat to be waged in the middle of the blood-red plain; he was Duryodhana’s supporter.
The warriors fought like two fierce bulls, and smote one another heavy blows, until their faces were reddened with blood. Once Duryodhana almost achieved victory, for he struck Bhima on the head so that all present thought that the Pandava hero had received his deathblow. Bhima staggered but recovered himself, and soon afterwards he struck Duryodhana a foul blow upon the knee, which smashed the bone so that he fell prostrate. Thus was the vow of Bhima fulfilled….
He danced round Duryodhana a time, then, kicking his enemy’s head, cried out at length: “Draupadi is avenged.”
Yudhishthira was wroth; he smote Bhima on the face and said: “O accursed villain, thou wilt cause all men to speak ill of us.”
Then Arjuna led Bhima away, and Yudhishthira knelt beside Duryodhana and said: “Thou art still our ruler, and if thou wilt order me to slay Bhima, thy command will be obeyed. Thou art now very nigh unto death, and I sorrow for the Kaurava wives and children, who will curse us because that thou hast been laid low.”
Said Balarama: “Bhima hath broken the laws of combat, for he smote Duryodhana below the waist.”
Krishna said: “My brother, did not Duryodhana wrong the Pandavas with foul play at dice? And did not Bhima, when he beheld Draupadi put to shame, vow to break the knee of Duryodhana?”
Said Balarama: “So thou dost approve of this?… Can I forget that Bhima kicked the head of our wounded kinsman, the rajah?”
Krishna stayed the vengeful hand of Balarama, and prevailed upon him to take vows not to fight against the Pandavas.
When night fell, the dying Duryodhana was visited on the battlefield by Aswatthaman, son of Drona, and Kripa, and Kritavarman. Unto Aswatthaman he gave permission to attack the Pandavas while yet they slumbered…. Then Drona’s son went forth in the darkness to glut his hunger for vengeance because that his sire had been slain…. The pale stars looked down on the dead and the dying as Aswatthaman crossed the battleplain and went stealthily towards the tents of his foemen, with Kripa and Kritavarman.
At the gate of the Pandava camp an awful figure rose up against the conspirators. Aswatthaman was not afraid, and he fought with his adversary until he perceived that he was the god Shiva, the Blue-throated Destroyer. Then Drona’s son drew back, and on an altar he kindled a fire to worship the all-powerful deity. Then, having naught else to sacrifice, he cast his own body upon the flames. By this supremely pious act Shiva was propitiated; he accepted Drona’s son and entered his body, saying: “Hitherto, for the sake of Krishna, have I protected the sons of Draupadi, but now their hour of doom hath come.”
Then Aswatthaman rushed into the camp and slaughtered with the cruel arm of vengeance. Rudely he awakened Dhrishta-dyumna, who cried out: “Coward! wouldst thou attack a naked man?”
Aswatthaman answered not his father’s slayer, but took his life with a single blow…. Through the camp he went, striking down each one he met, and shrieks and moans arose on every side.
Draupadi was awakened by the clamour, and her five young sons sprang up to protect her. Aswatthaman slew each one without pity…. Then he lit a great fire to discover those who had concealed themselves, and with reeking hands he completed his ghastly work of slaughter. Meanwhile Kripa and Kritavarman, with weapons in their hands, kept watch at the gate, and cut down all who endeavoured to escape.
Now the Pandava princes slept safely on that night of horror in the camp of the Kauravas, so that they escaped the sword of Drona’s son.
When his fell work was accomplished, the bloodthirsty Aswatthaman cut off the heads of Draupadi’s five sons and carried them to Duryodhana, who rejoiced greatly, believing that they were the heads of Yudhishthira and his brethren. But when he perceived that the avenger of night had slain the children of Draupadi instead, he cried out: “Alas! what horror hast thou committed? Thou hast slain innocent children, who, had they lived, would have perpetuated our name and our fame. My heart burns with anger against the sires and not their harmless sons.”
Duryodhana groaned heavily: his heart was oppressed with grief, and, bowing down his head, he died sorrowing.
Then Aswatthaman and Kripa and Kritavarman fled away, fearing the wrath of the Pandavas. (Excerpts from “Indian Myth and Legends”)